HAVANA, Cuba—President Barack Obama’s historic to Cuba this week has had all the trappings of a typical guy’s weekend: Two men putting aside past differences to make nice on politics, talk optimistically about business, and then watch a little baseball.
It’s the latest chapter in the long-distance bromance between Obama and Raul Castro, which started secretly years ago but was first made public in December 2014, when the two presidents announced they were ready to take their relationship to the diplomatic level. Since then, things have been advancing steadily as both leaders work to lessen the 90-mile, 57-year gap between their countries.
But this week things got even more serious between them: It was time to meet the family. For many Cubans the fact that Obama brought his whole family to their island is a very important gesture that underscores the strong blood ties that have long existed between the two nations.
And the fact that the first family is African American seems to be an added source of pride and inspiration for many black Cubans.
“Since the days of Spanish rule, it’s been the white race that’s been in power and making decisions here. I’ve never seen someone my color in government,” says Daylí, a 24-year-old waitress in Havana.
Mrs. Obama, in particular, represents a woman of strong family values and individual empowerment. She plays the roles of wife, mom and role model—and Cubans seem to appreciate that solid multitasking performance.
“We are very happy that Obama and Michelle are visiting with their kids, who are lovely,” says Marilin Montez, who stopped to talk to me as she walked through downtown Havana with her daughter, Odesa Maria de los Santos. “The fact that the U.S. has a black first lady sets an example for the whole world.”
The Obama family’s visit to Cuba is a moment of both inspiration and hope.
“I hope the first lady and president Obama help bring lots of changes, all the changes that we have needed here for a long time,” Beatriz, a 23-year-old Havana resident told me as she passed by the Parque de la Fraturnidad. “I would love to see the first lady, but I can’t—not even on TV, because we don’t have a TV in my house.”
Beatriz might have been disappointed with Cuban TV had she a set to watch. Local programming this week didn’t give much air time to the first lady’s visit, but did loop President Obama's lengthy meeting with Raul Castro on Monday, in addition to other timeless revolutionary programming.
While Mrs. Obama remained mostly out of the camera’s reach, she did hold a more intimate gathering on Monday with a group of 10 Cuban school girls to discuss matters of race and education.
“When I travel around the world as first lady, one of the things I always try to do is talk to young people, particularly young girls,” Mrs. Obama told the small group of mostly white students, who ranged in age from 15-20. “As a young minority growing up and trying to do her best, I know how important it is and how challenging it can be for young girls to understand the importance of education to fight through all the stereotypes and to make sure we have access to all the resources and all the emotional support we need to be successful.”
It was a heartfelt message, and one that might have resonated even louder with the black women gathered outside waiting to catch a glimpse of the first lady.
“I am very happy because she is African American. She is our color and she has done something that nobody else has ever done,” said Yurdeki, a black woman who waited in the street outside the the Cuban Art Factory. “I am here because I want to see her and her daughters, because they are all beautiful.”
“Despite the past relations between our two countries, she is here with her whole family. As a woman, I feel like this is a step forward and she feels identified with Cuban women,” added Elise Augusto, who also waited outside Mrs. Obama’s talk this morning. “Her visit here is very significant.”
Obama, too, has “broken the mold” and “generated a lot of hope” as a black president, says Cuban mother Madi Estrada.
Others see the the first black U.S. presidency as a team effort.
“I think that behind every strong man is a great woman,” says Elizabeth, a 28-year-old waitress. “I know she has had a part to play in improving relations with Cuba. She has contributed her opinions and ideas, because men always ask their wife about big decisions.”
In the end, two is better than one.
“At least you have a first lady. That’s important,” said Marilin Montez, referring to the fact that Cuba doesn’t recognize the position of first lady.
Jihan Hafiz contribute reporting to this story.